The Missed Lesson on Terrorism

Whenever there’s a terrorist attack even a botched one like last week on a Paris-bound train the debate turns to tightened security and retaliation. But a key part of a realistic campaign to reduce terrorism is to address underlying causes that fuel the rage behind the violence, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

The foiled attack last week by a heavily armed gunman on a Paris-bound express train has generated a surge of discussion and hand-wringing in Europe about how better to protect against such attacks. There is nothing new about European trains as a terrorist target; an attack against commuter trains in Madrid 11 years ago that killed 191 people was a far more significant event. And the policy challenges involved are hardly specific either to Europe or to trains.

Security for particular types of potential terrorist targets is routinely a topic after even failed terrorist attacks, and protective security countermeasures constitute a large proportion of public measures to counter international terrorism. Nonetheless, a serious and inherent limitation to what can be accomplished on this front is the unlimited number of potential targets.

French President Francois Hollande, center, with British businessman Chris Norman, left, U.S. student Anthony Sadler, U.S. Airman First Class Spencer Stone and U.S. National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos during a ceremony at the Elysee Palace in Paris honoring the men who helped thwart a terror attack on a Paris-bound train last week. (Pool photo)

French President Francois Hollande, center, with British businessman Chris Norman, left, U.S. student Anthony Sadler, U.S. Airman First Class Spencer Stone and U.S. National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos during a ceremony at the Elysee Palace in Paris honoring the four men who helped thwart a terror attack on a Paris-bound train last week. (Pool photo)

This limitation flows from the very nature of terrorism as the use of violence to elicit a broader political and psychological effect rather than merely to disable the particular target that is attacked. Soft targets can be made harder, but then terrorists will turn to other soft targets.

Commercial aviation, still a juicy terrorist target for several reasons, has been made much harder than it once was, but there are still plenty of trains to go after. And it’s not just transportation; any public place with a lot of people, such as shopping malls, will do.

The vast number of soft public targets means it is beyond the resources of public authorities to protect them at all. And with some targets, substantial protection quickly comes into conflict with normal commerce and everyday life. The sorts of security measures that now surround civil aviation could not practically be applied to mass transit and commuter railroads.

Trends in international terrorism in recent years have featured not only unlimited targets but also unlimited terrorists. All the soft, vulnerable targets in our open societies are vulnerable not only to well-organized groups but also to any individuals, or duets or trios, with a grievance, and if the grievance is political then any violent actions they take are by definition terrorism.

ISIS has grabbed our attention with its land-grabs in the Middle East, but it is focused on trying to sustain its so-called caliphate. Many of the operations conducted in its name, especially the farther one gets from the Middle East, are generated elsewhere with only the ISIS brand name being borrowed. So-called lone wolves are a bigger part of the problem in the West than they would be in Morocco or Bangladesh, and a bigger problem for the West than any attacks there by ISIS.

Counterterrorist measures are still, as they always have been, a matter of shifting odds rather than of being able to eradicate a problem. This is true of security countermeasures, even for potential targets that have been substantially hardened.

One of the few trains in the West that has airport-style security screening of passengers is the Eurostar train that uses the tunnel under the English Channel. One wonders what sort of security vulnerabilities regarding that train were demonstrated when an illegal migrant recently walked almost the entire length of the tunnel before he was caught.

The shifting of odds is also involved in anything that affects the motivations of would-be terrorists. The objective here is to reduce the chance of people being angry and frustrated enough to resort to the extreme of terrorism. The relevant public policies include ones that affect the personal circumstances in which such people live. They also include any policies of Western governments that become the objects of anger.

The shaping of neither of these types of policies commonly bears the label of counterterrorism. They are nonetheless where there is likely to be, over the long run, even greater potential for changing the odds of our soft public spaces being attacked than there is through security countermeasures. The potential also is greater than through offensive kinetic action taken against people who already have crossed the line into terrorism, including action taken broadly against groups or more narrowly against individuals.

With both types of action the severe limitations, as well as counterproductive aspects that can generate more angry people and more terrorism, have been repeatedly demonstrated.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

12 comments for “The Missed Lesson on Terrorism

  1. Mortimer
    August 28, 2015 at 12:15

    I whole heartedly concur with the comment by Uncle Sam’s great great grandson. The isis phenom has been made by our asinine decision to invade the Middle East with the full fledged intent to destabilize the entire region. We designed the divide and conquer construct and armed both sides. Now, tens of millions of people in the region are dying, displaced and existing in terror.

    Below is an excerpt on an account of heart wrenching, fiendish usurpation and terror endured and suffered by reason of our (and Israel’s) desire to CREATE A “NEW MIDDLE EAST.”

    ISIS: A Caliphate of Torture and Rape
    Posted by Matthew Barber on Tuesday, August 18th, 2015
    Laila Khoudeidaby Laila Khoudeida

    Originally from Sinjar, Iraq, Laila Khoudeida is a social worker and mental health specialist, currently serving on the board of Yazda, an organization she helped found in 2014 that responds to the needs of Yazidi victims of IS ethnic cleansing.

    I recorded this Sinjar survivor account in my notebook as it was related to me by “FA,” a Yazidi woman who managed to escape ISIS captivity late last year. She wanted to share her story with the world but chose not to share her name.

    Originally from a town called Tel Ezer in the Sinjar region, FA is a 23-year-old Yazidi woman from a very large family. Her neighborhood was home to thirteen other families who were closely related to her—grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and close friends. On Aug. 3, 2014, when FA heard the news about ISIS entering nearby Yazidi towns, she did not realize how quickly she would be forced to become the slave of one ISIS militant after another. After learning the frightening news, she and her family members gathered themselves so that they could head for the mountains.

    But they were too late. The ISIS militia had already beheaded countless Yazidi men and destroyed many nearby towns. She became very scared and held tightly to her mother and sisters as the gunshots continued. When ISIS reached her house, she was pulled by the hair with a gun pointed at her head as she along with her family were herded along to join other Yazidis who were gathered into groups. There, she witnessed her father and four uncles collapse to the ground as each was shot in the head. She said:

    “I wanted to die; I wanted to be the next one to be shot in the head, because I did not want to see any more of what was to come.”

    She would live to witness much more cruelty.

    Another 200 men were shot and the survivors, including her, were taken to Seba Shekh Kheder, a town located south of Sinjar. There, they separated women and put them in different groups according to their age and beauty. This was the last time she would see her mother. The children, including infants, were forcibly taken from their mothers to be raised by ISIS, where they are now being taught the Caliphate’s religion so they can grow up to become future jihadis.

    FA said that while in Seba Shekh Kheder:
    “I wanted to know where my mother was taken and if I would ever see her again. I kept looking around but I did not see anyone her age, there were only women close to my age and younger, including 9-year-olds.”

    They were ordered to walk single file to Baaj. She said, “At this point, I did not understand where they were taking us, but I noticed that we were moving farther away from my town.” After arriving in Baaj, she noticed the ISIS militants changing their minds; it seemed they did not feel safe having all of the captives there. She said:

    “I was exhausted and could not cry because I felt numb; I felt like this was a nightmare that I would soon wake up from.”

    They sat on the ground where the little girls clung to the older ones and one of them whispered to FA, “I am thirsty.” FA said, “That’s when my heart ached and I started crying.” They could not ask for water because the last one to do so, a 70-year-old woman, was struck across the face with a weapon.

    FA said that around 12 pm they were ordered to start walking again, towards Mosul.

    “We walked from 12 pm to 3 am and throughout our journey we walked over dead bodies and past destroyed homes. We would see vehicles pass by with black flags hanging out and men with long beards saying “Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!” as they passed us (meaning “god is the greatest”).”

    The ISIS men never addressed each other by their first names, intent on keeping the captives from learning their true identities. Once moved to Mosul, they remained there for 11 days, and during this period, she was forced to “marry” one of the men.

    “I resisted and was beat in the stomach and head until I became unconscious. When I woke up, I watched other women, including my sisters, go through the same experience.”

    Her face was so bruised up that she no longer drew the men’s attention, as they sought out good-looking women.

    “I watched my sister bang her head on the wall as one of the militants dragged her to his car.”

    FA later learned that her sister was sold off to someone in Syria and was taken to live with his family. The family didn’t believe that a Yazidi woman should live in a Muslim household, so they took her to the local shari’a court (perhaps to have her officially convert). The people saw her as an infidel who should be punished. That was the last she knew of her sister.

    FA was again grouped with about one hundred other women and they were ordered to walk back to Baaj. This time they stayed in Baaj for 8 days, at which point she was sold for about 10 dollars to someone in Tel Banat.

    “He did to me what he desired, then sold me to someone in Tel Qasab after two days.”

    In Tel Qasab, FA was tortured badly, raped multiple times a day, and beaten after each instance of rape. She was made to cook for the militant and clean his house, but since she did not look good enough for him after staying with him for two days, he brought her back to where the other women were being held.

    FA added that they were very exhausted and many of the girls did not care whether they lived or died because they saw how they were being used as sex objects and at any point could be killed, if they were to resist the militants’ sexual demands.

    “At three in the morning I felt a splash of cold water hit me in the face; I felt the pain of the wounds on my cheeks and head and could barely open my eyes.”

    When she woke up, she saw that some women were being ordered to stand up in a line and take their scarves off.

    “I felt a wire hit me hard in the back and I slowly stood up.

    I did not know where my scarf had fallen off, but they were looking for women who satisfied their taste in looks.”

    FA’s brother’s wife and cousin were two of many who met this desire and were taken. They were screaming and trying to find a way to escape, but they could not. Her brother’s wife still had her son with her and he looked very ill—her nephew looked dead.

    “My sister wanted to come and give me a hug because she knew that that would be the last time we would see each other. But she was dragged to the vehicle.”

    Her brother’s wife is still held in Mosul today, but she doesn’t know much about her sister, or whether her nephew is still alive.

    The next day in the evening two women hung themselves from the ceiling fan in the building; one of them was the wife of her neighbor, a very young and beautiful woman. She had told FA that she would kill herself before they touched her, and she did so.

  2. quelconque
    August 28, 2015 at 02:26

    The whole incident seems fishy. The initial stories about hearing the guy loading the gun in the toilet, and then the updated story. As bobzz pointed out, why get on a train with no means of escape if you just want to hold some folks up. El Khazzani was supposedly already known to French authorities and the Americans just happened to be in the same compartment? And the French can’t wait to play the whole thing up and award them a ‘Légion d’honneur’.


  3. LJ
    August 27, 2015 at 19:10

    This article is based on the same old blowback explanation for teror that has been pushed and believed for decades. I’m sending this article back for a complete re-write.

    • August 30, 2015 at 00:59

      So you really think, then, that there is no such thing as blowback?

      That Americans (and western Europeans) are always good guys, and whatever they do is always good and right? And that “terrorists” are always just simply “bad” and “evil” people, and that there is never any need to try to understand them or their motivations for wanting to do what they do, and no need to try to put ourselves in their shoes?

  4. Richard Cabot
    August 27, 2015 at 17:17

    Unfortunately the basic premise of the story is incorrect. I expected better out of Paul Pillar.

    The gunman was a simple thief who set out to rob people on the train because he was hungry. See the Reuters post below.

    This came out on Monday, plenty of time for Mr. Pillar to do some basic fact checking before writing his post.

    • bobzz
      August 27, 2015 at 17:59

      And you believe his lawyer? He could have selected a target with a better chance of escape—to a good restaurant no doubt.

    • Zachary Smith
      August 27, 2015 at 18:59

      Ayoub El Khazzani, the suspected gunman who was overtaken by passengers on a Thalys train in France last week, carried with him an AKM assault rifle with 270 rounds of ammunition, a Luger M80 automatic pistol with a full cartridge, a box-cutter and a water-bottle-sized container full of gasoline, according to French Prosecutor Francois Molins.

      To do a simple robbery, all the man needed was the pistol. In fact, an unloaded pistol.

      Believing what smart lawyers invent on the spot is not really a good idea.

  5. Erik
    August 27, 2015 at 15:10

    Clearly the US must increase policies that improve the “personal circumstances in which such people live” and avoid policies that “become the objects of anger.”

    Humanitarian aid to improve health, education, and industry in impoverished areas deserves the vast budget given for military aid, would have had far better results in national security alone, and since WWII would have lifted half the world from poverty. US military aid and action since WWII has had neither the intent nor the effect of improving security, human rights, or forms of government elsewhere, and has resulted in injustices for which the US is quite predictably and properly hated.

    Nearly all US “aid” since WWII has been designed either to suppress the socialism needed by the developing nations to provide for basic needs, or to advance the cause of the wealthy or of large companies, or to provide aid to Israel despite its utterly vacuous claims of merit or value to the US. All of this could not have been better been designed to outrage the world.

    But these policies cannot change until US elections and mass media are protected from economic power, which cannot be done by democratic means because elections and mass media are the principal means of democracy. We live in the empty suit of armor left us by the rot of unregulated business, which now blunders around the globe, swinging its sword madly at enemies which are either imaginary or of its own making. Our best hope is that its enemies will finally topple or corral the beast, as with the Roman Empire. But even the resounding defeat of US imperialism will not destroy the seed of rightwing selfishness, hypocrisy, ignorance, and malice, which as in the rise of Naziism will blame its defeat upon its moral superiors, and blunder forth again to wreak injustice for the private gain of the right wing.

  6. Bill Bodden
    August 27, 2015 at 14:48

    The problem here is similar to the problem with mass migrations caused by offense or injury in the pursuit of some form of dominance. The consequences are the victims either react with some form of violence or by escaping to some other place they hope will be better or at least less cruel. Morality does not exist and never has existed in the decision-making process in Wall Street, Washington, or other centers of avarice and aggression. Terrorism and migration have always been part of human history and will continue to be such while greed and the lust for power prevail.

  7. Uncles Sam's Great Great Grandson
    August 27, 2015 at 13:21

    According to the FBI’s own definition, with all things being considered, the US government would most obviously be the biggest terrorist organization in the entire world

    ” FBI — Terrorism Definition

    Definitions of Terrorism in the U.S. Code

    18 U.S.C. § 2331 defines “international terrorism” and “domestic terrorism” for purposes of Chapter 113B of the Code, entitled “Terrorism”:

    “International terrorism” means activities with the following three characteristics:

    Involve violent acts or acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law;
    Appear to be intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and
    Occur primarily outside the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S., or transcend national boundaries in terms of the means by which they are accomplished, the persons they appear intended to intimidate or coerce, or the locale in which their perpetrators operate or seek asylum.*
    “Domestic terrorism” means activities with the following three characteristics:

    Involve acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law;
    Appear intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination. or kidnapping; and
    Occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S.
    18 U.S.C. § 2332b defines the term “federal crime of terrorism” as an offense that:

    Is calculated to influence or affect the conduct of government by intimidation or coercion, or to retaliate against government conduct; and
    Is a violation of one of several listed statutes, including § 930(c) (relating to killing or attempted killing during an attack on a federal facility with a dangerous weapon); and § 1114 (relating to killing or attempted killing of officers and employees of the U.S.).
    * FISA defines “international terrorism” in a nearly identical way, replacing “primarily” outside the U.S. with “totally” outside the U.S. 50 U.S.C. § 1801(c). ”

  8. Mark
    August 27, 2015 at 13:20

    The problem with that is that often non-existent problems fuel the rage behind extremist violence. For example, in the United States, the right-wing anti-government militia movement, which has been involved in a number of terrorist plots, conspiracies, and acts of violence, believes in conspiracy theories about hundreds of concentration camps in the U.S., about the imminent suspension of the Constitution and the declaration of martial law, and about mass gun confiscation. How do you address the “cause” of non-existent concentration camps? They won’t believe you if you tell them they don’t exist.

  9. dahoit
    August 27, 2015 at 13:13

    Draining the swamp of hatred should be our first step,but is now our last,at least to the Ziomonsters and their traitor quisling whores.

Comments are closed.